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Tomorrow, Africa’s largest country will split in two. After decades of war and acrimony between North and South, the Republic of South Sudan will formalize its long awaited independence. But just exactly where this vast and troubled territory will be divided remains not entirely clear. Sections of the North-South border—now the world’s newest international boundary—remain hotly contested. Mounting militarization on both sides makes for a highly unstable stretch of territory. As such, the two parties have tentatively resolved to create a demilitarized zone along the border, but the details of such an arrangement must be carefully thought through lest it generate even greater problems in the long run.
As part of its strategy to squeeze concessions from the South ahead of partition and exhibit strength to domestic constituencies, Khartoum’s army recently invaded the long-disputed Abyei area and ignited conflict in South Kordofan—a politically divided border state—where fighting continues to rage. Localized conflict persists elsewhere, communities on both sides claim contested lands, and most critically, the majority of the divided country’s lucrative oil reserves (the lifeline for regimes in both Khartoum and Juba) fall along this 2,100 km border.
Meanwhile, negotiations toward a host of post-separation arrangements between North and South continue, albeit slowly. Among the many agenda items to be resolved is demarcation of the disputed areas as well as future border management. In the midst of an increasingly volatile security climate, Northern and Southern leaders last week signed an agreement which envisages a demilitarized zone stretching some 10 kilometers on each side of the line. Critically, that deal also resolved to establish monitoring and verification teams to aide in “building mutual trust, confidence, and an environment which encourages long-term stability and economic development” in the borderlands. Such teams are to be comprised of unarmed military observers from the UN as well as North and South alike—a triumvirate necessary for any such mechanism to succeed.
In a move to stabilize Abyei, Ethiopian forces agreed to provide security there under a robust new UN mandate. The new border security agreement also calls for troops to be drawn from this temporary mission to provide protection for the monitoring teams in the demilitarized zone—a request that will require another nod from the UN Security Council. Such an arrangement may indeed be necessary to help avoid renewed North-South hostilities in the immediate term, but the parties, the Ethiopian command, and the UN Security Council should consider the following three principles in further shaping this operation.
First, a predominantly military operation (and oversight mechanism) will, on its own, struggle to cultivate an environment of mutual trust and confidence in border localities. Deterring encroachment of unauthorized armed actors is critical, but a complement of civilian monitors is necessary to support cross-border initiatives, dispute resolution, local border management, and effective information gathering and reporting—aspirations all rightly implied in the agreement. Lessons may be drawn from previous successful mechanisms employed in Sudan and beyond, which are often as much about building confidence, cultivating community relations, and supporting mutually-agreed arrangements as they are about verifying legal obligations or military movements.
Second, any arrangement that inadvertently hardens the border could prove disastrous in the long run. The people of Sudan’s border territories have relied on a porous boundary for generations. Too firm a barrier could intensify land and resource pressure, threaten pastoralist livelihoods, create hardships for Southerners who rely on goods and services from the North, and unnecessarily restrict communities which enjoy the benefits of joint cross-border initiatives and interaction. Recent blockades imposed by Khartoum on North-South transit routes are a prime example, pinching Southern areas that rely on food, fuel, and other critical staples originating in the North.
Third, the interim nature of both the border agreement and the force manning Abyei and the demilitarized zone must be just that, “interim”. These arrangements cannot remain indefinitely—particularly if the border remains undefined—lest they simply incubate the disputes and effectively inhibit final resolution and demarcation of the border.
The demilitarized zone and monitoring mechanism may be necessary components of border management between the two new states, but when it comes to further structuring and implementing this arrangement, the devil is—as always— in the details.
Most leaders in North and South endorsed the concept of a “soft border”, but mounting military campaigns and acrimonious post-referendum talks have eroded that commitment and deepened mistrust. Further deterioration of relations could put a soft border further out of reach. Current security realities must be considered in light of the long-term social, political, and economic consequences of new barriers—physical or psychological—in border areas and more broadly across the two Sudans. If and when the hostilities, brinkmanship, and emotions surrounding partition subside, leaders in North and South alike may recognize just how much they will need each other.
Zach Vertin is a Sudan Analyst with the International Crisis Group. He divides his time between Sudan and Nairobi, Kenya.